Monday, 11 August 2008

Boris Johnson: Buffoon of London - Is this what we want from politicians?

Last month in the posting about the desire in London to revive the Routemaster bus, an old-fashioned beloved but impractical vehicle, I mentioned the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. The position of an elected Mayor of London was created in 2000. Despite having a population of around 10 million people, more than many European countries, and being at the centre of an economic region with 25 million people (i.e. larger than the population of Spain or Poland) London has often lacked its own government. In 1986 on party political grounds rather than issues of practicality, the Greater London Council (GLC) was abolished. Control of London then fell to the 32 London boroughs and the City of London (the government of the medieval core of London, a small area with few inhabitants but the main financial centres). It was not until 2000 that the replacement Greater London Authority and the London Assembly were created. It is incredible that the largest city in the UK had no cross-city government for 24 years. Anyone living in London at the time knows the chaos it caused as road works in particular could not be co-ordinated across boroughs (which being so densely populated are often only a few miles wide) and major transport projects were delayed because companies had to deal with a whole range of councils.

Anyway, finally in 2000 this mad system was ended and we got an elected mayor. Ironically the man who held the position 2000-08 was Ken Livingstone who had been leader of the GLC 1981-84 and then after a short break 1984-86. Having broken with the Labour Party he was an Independent 2000-2004 and then as a Labour candidate 2004-08 having been welcomed back into the party. He lost the election to serve his third term of office by 1.028 million votes to the Conservative candidate, Boris Johnson's 1.168 million. Livingstone came over in the election as looking weary (he is 63; Johnson is 44). Perhaps he did not expect people to take Johnson seriously. Livingstone has headed London for a total of 13 years. One thing that must be said about him is that he always had good ideas and a populist touch. He radically reformed public transport in London with the Fare's Fair scheme of the 1980s and again the Oyster system of the 2000s. He has always been a strong advocate for London and played an important role in getting it the 2012 Olympics and the preparations for that. People have perceived him as left-wing, but that is mainly because of how he was painted as a 'loony left' member by the Thatcherite press of the 1980s. In fact though his policies seem to stem from a mix of common sense and trying to do what he sees as the best for the people of London.

Now, we turn to Boris Johnson who has been in power for a little over 3 months. Johnson, as I have mentioned before, is an ex-public school boy having gone to Eton (as did Conservative party leader David Cameron) and then on to Balliol College, Oxford University. So immediately he is unlike almost everyone who lives in London. He has an international background he was born in New York, his great-grandfather served in the government of the Ottoman Empire, his father worked for the European Commission and Boris went to school in Brussels; his second wife is half-Indian. So in these ways he has an international background in common with many London citizens. Before surgery as a boy he was deaf and this may explain the rather distracted manner in which he comes across. He was Conservative MP for Henley-on-Thames 2001-08 and Shadow Education spokesman 2005-08.

The main problem with him is his incompetence. For someone who has been in the public eye as a politician and before that as a journalist, he seems to have a real inability not to offend people. He failed almost immediately as a management consultant because he found the graphs and charts of the profession tedious. This is a characteristic that has already caused him difficulties in his job as mayor because he complains the meetings which are at the heart of the job are tedious. He has handed responsibility for all planning to a deputy, an approach that is in sharp contrast to Livingstone's hands-on approach.

Johnson was kicked off 'The Times' for falsifying a quote, but seems to have risen through 'The Daily Telegraph' from 1987 onwards becoming European Community correspondent (no doubt aided by the inside family contacts; his father-in-law is also president of the European Commission on Human Rights, so often he would be interviewing family friends) then assistant editor 1994-9 and then editor of 'The Spectator' 1999-2005. Both of these are very conservative publications. Working for them seems to have simply kept him distant from ordinary people and he has continued to make ill-judged comments about citizens of Liverpool, Portsmouth and New Guinea that he has had to apologise for. In this way he is very like the Duke of Edinburgh. They are so wrapped up in attitudes that died in the 1950s that they go around speaking in an ill-informed way that causes offence in these more enlightened times. The Duke of Edinburgh you can forgive, he is an elderly, non-elected monarch with actually no power, Johnson is different he runs a city with the most multi-cultural population in the UK and a budget of billions. Under his mayorship it will be the Olympic city welcoming people from around the globe. More faux pas from him could cause international embarrassment for the city and the UK as a whole. He tends to speak bluntly and in appealing to his 'constituency', prosperous people of the kind I encountered at that Hampshire show recently, he forgets that the bulk of the population do not share his outdated views and actually want someone who is responsive to the world of 2008-13. Though perhaps I am wrong, maybe it is not 'the bulk' and I am looking at this from my small constituency as much as he is. However, if he was mayor of Royal Leamington Spa, then he would be facing fewer challenges than as mayor of the capital.
It is not just that Johnson comes over as being very 'silly' and has pandered to this by appearing on comedic television programmes, it is because you have no sense that this is an act. It does lead people to excuse him for his faux pas, but hardly instills confidence that he can handle crises when they come.

Given his loathing of procedure and his dependence on his deputies; he had 5 deputy mayors. The deputy mayor he handed planning to, Sir Simon Milton was embarrassed when it turned out that he was breaking regulations by remaining a member of Westminster Council and the Local Government Association and taking up this new role. Ray Lewis, deputy mayor for young people was forced to resign last month when it was revealed he had been investigated for financial irregularities when a church minister. Even during the election Johnson lost his deputy chief of staff James McGrath after he made statements about people of Afro-Caribbean origin returning to the Caribbean region if unhappy with policies in London. Tim Parker another deputy mayor and the one designated by Johnson as 'first deputy' have said that there are insufficient women of quality to appoint them to senior positions in the GLA. So, again we have out-dated attitudes seeming to be accepted by the Johnson administration. Like Johnson himself, men such as Lewis and Milton have controversy around them, that might not be criminal, but certainly makes people feel uneasy. The fact that there are 5 deputy mayors, will lead, according to Tony Travers of the London School of Economics quoted in 'The Guardian' to a fragmented policy-making approach which the formation of the GLA was supposed to combat.

What policies does he have? Well unsurprisingly he cleared out those Livingstone had initiated such as an increased congestion charge for heavy fuel using cars and to pedestrianise Parliament Square. Instead he annouced the abolition of the 'bendy' buses and revival of the Routemaster buses. So he is clearly moving transport back to the early 1960s and favouring elitist transport over public transport. He also scrapped plans to introduce 60 hydrogen-powered vehicles and ended the oil deal that Livingstone brokered with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who Johnson (in line with the US attitude) calls a dictator. Aside from that, very like David Cameron himself (they were both Eton boys and members of the same banqueting club at Oxford University) he has no policies.

Is this really a problem? George W. Bush has set the model of a leader who makes no policy for himself and is a silly figurehead who seems to act simply as a distraction for whatever is going on below him. He seems to have no idea of what politics is actually about let alone running a country or in Johnson's case something big enough to be a country. No wonder it has been ruled out that Johnson could not replace the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, because we know that if he did you would have a shabby, mildly corrupt figure in that position again more about publicity than policy. I think that the British public has a low tolerance of politics. They see all the functions of the state as going on moderately inefficiently and feel they can do nothing about it. They will protest when a service is stopped in their local area or they oppose the building of some necessary structure and even then they blame the local council rather than any other broader political structure. So, for them, why not have a mayor who is a comic figure who spouts mildly bigoted views that they mouth themselves when among friends down the pub? There is no need to have a politician let alone an effective one as head of London. I think for all his policies, Livingstone won because people liked him standing against the Labour Party and he seemed like an ordinary man. In the past eight years though he has had to be a politician and that is not something people like in their heads of government.

I remember when at university fellow students complaining that the university newspaper was 'too political'. Its politics coverage was about student union politics nothing broader, but this was too much and they wanted it to restrict itself to sports results and details about social events. When I was at university people would often elect a pet cat or a pinball machine or an elderly celebrity to particular student union posts, rather than a person, despite the fact that universities were under heavy pressure in the dying days of Thatcher's rule. If university graduates wanted this, then surely it is unsurprising to find that attitude spread across many in the population. So, possibly in Boris Johnson, many Londoners have got the politician they want, someone to entertain them like a clown for the next five years while London grinds on not getting any better and with many challenges not even noted let alone tackled. I predict that as a result the 2012 Olympics will run into severe problems, notably with transport, but also attitudes to visitors. In his bigoted attitudes even to people from other parts of the UK, Johnson gives the green light to those people with stronger prejudices, that it is alright to speak and behave that way. This is going to be making an unwelcoming environment for visitors (though after Beijing it might appear mild in comparison). London will decay under Johnson because simply he is incapable of doing the job for which he has been elected. Given how much of the UK is tied into London it will damage the country as a whole. Of course by then he might be well in step with the national government because Cameron as prime minister will be no different and we will see a head of government with really no idea what to do but muddle along. Meanwhile London and the UK as a whole will become poorer and far more divided than it is even at the moment.

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